Some of us, like me, walk past our water heaters daily but give little thought to whether or not it needs maintenance. We've grown dependent on hot water and need it daily. Regular water heater maintenance is very important and relatively easy to do. You can either choose to have your gas or electric unit professionally serviced or you can do the work yourself.
Right now, you may be wondering, ‘how do I maintain my water heater and why is it so important that I do?’ Maintaining your gas or electric water heater helps your water heater last longer and uses less energy which saves you money. The typical lifespan of a water heater tank is 8 to 12 years but a well-maintained water heater can last 20 or more years. Routine maintenance can 2x the lifespan of your water heater. Water heater maintenance includes:
- Checking your temperature & pressure relief valve monthly
- Draining and flushing your water heater annually.
- Changing your anode rod every 3-5 years
Now that you know it’s fairly easy to maintain a gas or electric water heater, let’s dive into this in more detail below. We’ll look at the necessary steps to maintaining a water heater yourself as well as why it’s important to have it serviced regularly.
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So, if you’re ready to learn more tips related to gas and electric water heater maintenance, then let’s get to it!
If your water heater has a water heater blanket installed, you'll need to remove it to troubleshoot the steps below.
How To Maintain a Water Heater?
Gas and electric water heaters are fairly easy to maintain. The most important maintenance step you can do is the drain and flush your water heater of sediment. You should flush your water heater annually. A family of 2 that doesn't use a lot of hot water could get by with flushing every 18 months. Large families that use a lot of hot water may need to do this more frequently.
The supplies and DIY steps required include the following:
Tools and Materials
- Garden Hose
- Channel Lock Pliers
- Flathead Screwdriver
DIY Guide to Draining & Flushing Your Water Heater
Step 1: Shut off Power to Your Water Heater
- Electric water heaters will have either a service disconnect beside the water heater or a circuit breaker located inside the panel box.
- Locate the disconnect or circuit breaker and shut power off to the water heater. Some service disconnects have a pull connect to cut power to the water heater. Never try to disconnect the wiring at the top of the water heater.
- Gas water heaters have a control box located at the bottom of the water heater. On the control box is a knob labeled Off/Pilot/On. Turn the knob from On to Pilot. You do not need to turn the water heater completely off or shut off the gas to the water heater.
Step 2: Shut off the Cold Water Supply to your Water Heater
- Locate the cold water shut off valve. This is located at the top of the water heater above the cold water inlet. If you do not have a cold water shut off valve, you should stop and call a licensed plumber to have one installed.
- Close the cold water valve. You will have either a ball valve or a gate valve.
- Ball valve – turn the valve handle 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the water pipe.
- Gate valve – turn the valve in a clockwise to close and counter-clockwise to open.
Step 3: Check the Pressure Relief Valve
- Both gas and electric water heaters come with a safety device known as a temperature & pressure valve aka the T&P valve. This valve opens up and releases any built-up pressure in the tank. Should the valve malfunction, the valve could hot leak or even worse the tank could possibly explode!
- The T&P valve should have a discharge pipe installed that is directed to the exterior. Sometimes the discharge pipe terminates over a drain pan installed under the water heater.
- If the discharge pipe terminates over the drain pan, you'll need to place a bucket under the pressure relief valve discharge pipe to collect water.
- If no discharge pipe is installed, it is not recommended that you test the T&P Valve without a discharge pipe installed due to the risk of burning from scalding hot water. You should install a discharge pipe before testing the T&P valve
- Pull the trip lever on the T&P valve. Immediately following, you should hear air escaping and see water or vapor being released into the bucket or the exterior where the pipe terminates.
- Upon completion of testing, the T&P valve should spring back and sit in place. Check to be sure the valve closes and no water is leaking from the discharge pipe. If your T&P valve is leaking you should see our article Why Your Pressure Relief Valve is Leaking.
Step 4: Open the Hot Water Tap at the Sink
- Go to a nearby sink and open the hot water side of the faucet. This releases the vacuum on the tank and will allow water to drain freely from the tank when you open the drain valve later.
- If your water heater has a does not drain with the hot water tap open, you will need to allow air into the water heater tank a different way. This can be done by disconnecting either the hot or cold supply piping, however, the best option is to open the temperature & pressure relief valve to allow air into the water heater tank for draining.
Step 5: Drain the Water Heater Tank
- Sediment buildup or mineral deposits can clog your water lines and prevent your heater from running efficiently. By draining the tank, you remove sediment buildup inside the tank and help to prolong the life of your water heater.
- Connect a garden hose to the drain valve located at the bottom of the water heater. Direct the garden hose to a floor drain in the basement or to the exterior of your home.
- Open the drain valve on the water heater. You may need a flathead screwdriver to do this. Allow the water to drain completely out of the water heater. This removes the majority of the sediment inside the tank.
Step 6: Check the Condition of Your Anode Rod
- With the water heater drained, you should check your water heater's sacrificial anode rod. This rod protects your tank from corrosion by attracting corrosive particles in the water supply.
- Look at the top of your water heater for a hex-head connection.
- Using a wrench or socket remove the anode rod and examine it for corrosion. If corroded, replace the anode rod. You can purchase an anode rod at your local home store in the plumbing department. You should replace your anode rod every 3 years. You may need to do this sooner if you have hard water.
- Sidenote, the anode rod on some modern water heaters is installed on the hot water outlet. This can be difficult to access and requires the hot water outlet to be disconnected to access the anode rod. For more details on this process, see our article Water Heater Anode Rods: What it is & How to Replace it
- Wrap Teflon tape 3-4 times around the threading in a clockwise manner.
- Resecure the existing if it is in good condition or install the replacement anode rod.
Step 7: Inspect Your Drain Valve
- This is more of a tip than an action step. If your drain valve is plastic, it is recommended that you replace the plastic drain valve with a brass drain valve. See our article Replace a Water Heater Drain Valve: DIY Illustrated Guide.
- To replace your drain valve, remove the old valve with a pair of channel lock pliers.
- Wrap Teflon tape around the threading on the new drain valve 3-4 times in a clockwise motion.
- Screw on the new drain valve and tighten with channel lock pliers. Be sure the drain valve points downward when tightened.
Step 8: Flush Your Water Heater
- With the drain valve open, open the cold water supply to allow water to enter the tank and flush out any remaining sediment. Do until no sediment is visible and the water is clear.
- Turn the cold water supply back OFF.
- Close the drain valve and then disconnect the hose.
- Turn ON the cold water valve to allow water to reenter the tank.
- Once water flows freely through the faucet, turn the faucet OFF and then turn the electricity or gas back on to the water heater.
Step 9: Restore Power to the Water Heater
- Electric water heaters – turn the breaker or service disconnect back ON.
- Gas water heaters – turn the knob on the control box back to ON and to the desired temperature setting. We recommend 115-120 degrees.
- The water heater will take approximately 30 minutes to one hour to recover. Full recovery may take longer for larger water heaters.
Step 10: Final Check For Leaks or Drips
- Faulty water supply connections usually cause most leaks or drips.
- Check the valves, anode rod and pipes to ensure everything is properly closed and tightly sealed.
- Tighten connections if needed.
Do Water Heaters Need Maintenance?
Yes. As we’ve explained above, water heaters require regular maintenance to avoid breakdowns. To keep the unit running efficiently and extend its lifespan, you should service it, at the very least, once per year.
It's not unheard of for a properly maintained water heater to double its life expectancy. I've seen some water heaters in good working order to be 30 years old or more. It's better to replace your water heater because you want to rather than because of a catastrophic flooding event that costs you thousands in interior damages.
Follow the step by step instructions above and your water heater will last you a very long time.
Should a Water Heater Be Drained Periodically?
Yes. You should periodically drain the water in your tank to keep the sediment and mineral build-up from affecting its performance. Once a year draining and flushing is recommended by licensed plumbers to keep your water heater in tip-top shape.
If you are uncomfortable doing this yourself, you can hire a licensed plumber to do this for you. The typical cost is $300-$400. Replacement of the anode rod, drain valve, etc would be an additional cost.
How Do You 2X the Life of a Water Heater?
There are 8 ways to prolong the life of your water heater. These include the following:
- Do regular maintenance checks – look for any cracks, gaps or leaks.
- Check the pressure relief valve – simply lift the lever and if no water is released from the discharge pipe, then you need to replace the valve.
- Flush the tank – drain a few gallons from the tank and inspect the water; if you see a lot of dirt in it, then it’s time to flush it out.
- Inspect the anode rod – if the anode rod (which is a piece of metal used to prevent the tank from rusting) is completely corroded, then you need to replace it as soon as possible.
- Inspect the gas lines – check for any cracks in the gas lines and if you suspect there’s a leak, call a professional immediately!
- Install an expansion tank – this device will reduce wear-and-tear on your unit and improve its overall function while extending its lifespan. Don't know if you need an expansion tank or not? See our article Are Water Heater Expansion Tanks Required.
- Invest in a water softener – if you have hard water, a softener will keep mineral deposits from building up and affecting your tank’s performance. If you routinely have staining on your plumbing fixtures, you likely have hard water. An at-home water analysis kit can quickly identify if you have a hard water problem.
- Provide sufficient space – allow for plenty of room around the water heater tank, so it can be easily inspected from all angles; air circulation around the unit is vital and reduces the risk of fires. Also, this prevents dents and other damage to the tank which could damage the internal tank requiring early replacement.
What is Better, a Gas or Electric Water Heater?
Depending on where you live, gas water heaters are typically cheaper to run than electric units. Though they may cost more initially, gas water heaters often pay for themselves in about a year, based on energy savings alone.
The average lifespan of gas and electric water heaters is about the same – between 10 and 15 years. Tankless units, on the other hand, can last up to 20 years! Electric units are easier to install than gas types. They are also considered safer, as they don’t require fuel, which can potentially leak or explode.
In general, electric tank heaters tend to run more efficiently than gas water heaters, as gas units inevitably lose through venting, thus wasting energy. Regardless of which one you choose, both models need to be properly serviced in order to function at an optimum level.
In recent years, alternative hybrid heat pump water heaters have arrived on the market. These water heaters work more efficiently than both gas and electric models. The downside is the added cost and space they take up.
If you are interested in learning more about hybrid heat pump water heaters see our guide How Hybrid Heat Pump Water Heaters Work – Benefits, Cost & Savings.
To conclude, it’s easy to maintain your tank-style gas or electric water heater, as long as you follow a few simple steps. With a little handyman know-how, you can safely service your tank, helping to extend its lifespan and keep it running efficiently. This will save you both time and money in the long run.